Mao's Great Famine
The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
In the years he ruled the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong presided over the greatest mass murder in human history, both in his elimination of millions of perceived political enemies and also in the starving of tens of millions in callously engineered mass famine. Professor Frank Dikötter estimates that at least 45 million people “were starved” (not just “starved”) to death in Mao’s Great Famine. In his “People’s Trilogy”, Professor Dikötter traces the mechanisms and motives for this killing the one-party Chinese state from its foundation in 1949 through the periods of “Liberation” (The Tragedy of Liberation, 2013), the “Great Leap Forward” (Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 (Bloomsbury, 2011)),” and the “Cultural Revolution” (The Cultural Revolution, 2016). In our discussion today, he continues the narrative into the era of Mao’s successors, from Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s to Xi Jinping in 2019.
Professor Dikötter also compares Mao’s regime with the Soviet Union under Stalin and Khrushchev, especially in terms of Stalin’s great famine in Ukraine and his authoritarian purges at the highest levels of the Communist Party. Moreover Dr. Dikötter’s discussion of Mao’s lieutenants (or potential rivals)—Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiao Ping, Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi, among others—shows the paranoid insider politics of the dictatorship. Likewise, Dr. Dikötter’s haunting narrative style extends the famine; he illustrates the unimaginable suffering of 45 million victims through all-too-imaginable stories of individuals who watched their closest family perish or were driven to heinous acts through hunger and desperation. It is not a happy story, but it is one that everyone should know well—especially given that, unlike the Soviet Empire or the Nazi Third Reich, the People’s Republic of China exists today under the same ruling party.
Frank Dikötter is an eminent historian of modern China. He has published a dozen books including the recent “People’s Trilogy,” which have changed the way we think about China under Mao Zedong. Mao’s Great Famine won the Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction in 2011. Dr. Dikötter is Chair of Humanities in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Krzysztof Odyniec is a historian of the Early Modern Spanish Empire specializing on culture, diplomacy, and travel. He completed his PhD in 2017 at UC Berkeley and he is currently writing a book on the first resident ambassadors in Habsburg Spain.